Healing member support mental health Rabbis spirituality

The Good Enough Rabbi (Redux)

Who among us hasn’t seen the so-called chain letter entitled, “The Perfect Rabbi” (modeled on “The Perfect Pastor,” author unknown)? You know, the one that says “the perfect rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor …” etc., and then tells you to bundle up your rabbi and send him (yes, him) to the top synagogue on the list. It’s hard not to wince while smiling at this description of our laypeople’s fantasies about us. We wince a second time when we recognize how we ourselves fall victim to believing this fantasy. 

Some years ago, frustrated by the way both laypeople and rabbi had internalized this image of perfection, I wrote a parody of the parody and called it “The Good Enough Rabbi” (inspired by the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” mother). A parody, yes, but one with underlying seriousness: What would it mean for us rabbis if we gave up the aspiration to be perfect and instead accepted the good-enough? Would we be less successful or less loved? Would we feel more inadequate, less in control, more disappointing, or more hopeless?

While you might argue that now is not the time to raise this issue once again, I would suggest that the present crisis offers the perfect (okay, good-enough) opportunity for this conversation. The coronavirus crisis highlights the basic conflicts with which we already struggle. If we normally work a little too hard, we are working even harder now. If we usually worry about how long the temple will stay afloat, we are even more concerned now. If we normally have difficulty maintaining self-care practices, whatever little we might have done before falls apart at a time like this. If protecting a day off always requires some effort, that effort feels herculean in this moment. 

It’s true that we live in desperate times. We’ve been called upon to shift our entire rabbinic life onto Zoom. We’ve been challenged to offer pastoral care remotely, a seeming contradiction in terms. We stand alone by the graveside. We scramble to create an appropriate backdrop to our teaching and services, all the while watching the disappearance of our carefully guarded boundaries between home and work. And how again do you enhance your appearance on Zoom when your gray roots are showing and you haven’t been able to get your eyebrows waxed?

The ramping up has taken every bit of our energy and then some. Many of us are exhausted. And yet we also feel strangely gratified. We’ve been surprised at how intimate a remote funeral can feel. We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people logging on to Shabbat services. We’ve found support from each other on our CCAR and WRN Facebook pages like never before. We’ve been stretched thin, but at the same time, we feel needed and productive. 

“This is a good moment to turn that sense of self-judgment into self-inquiry. What do you yourself need in this moment? Whatever you usually do for self-care, the solution now is to do more of it.”

We rabbis love to fix things, so this productivity can be like a drug for us. The more we experience its rewards, the more we crave it.  So we feel tempted to say yes to everything. We think about what else we can offer, how much more programming we can create, how many more phone calls we can make. At the same time, we bemoan the loss of the usual time off. We complain about how many hours we spend on Zoom. We are either sad to be alone or crazed by having children underfoot. We are in such constant motion that we have lost touch with what we might be feeling and how we are really doing. We need to sit still in order to grieve all that has been lost, both the personal and the communal. And frankly, we need to accept that we just can’t fix this.

It would be lovely to offer the perfect prescription for self-care at this point, but a self-care practice just isn’t a “one size fits all.” You first have to know yourself before you can craft what constitutes self-care for you. We have all been told we should meditate, exercise, do yoga, avoid junk food, and be in therapy (guilty as charged). It’s hard to argue with any of that. But what makes one person feel restored isn’t always the same for another. Prayer might work for you, but it might not for me. Knitting might bring solace to one, while reading does it for another. Cleaning your house and rolling out your refrigerator to vacuum the coils can be surprisingly satisfying (okay, I confess). Breaking up with Facebook is the way for some, while connecting with friends on Facebook comforts others. And what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to do nothing at all. I think of the wise words of that bear-of-very-little-brain: “Sometimes I sits and thinks,” said Winnie the Pooh, “And sometimes I just sits.” What if we, the people who gave the world the Sabbath, actually allowed ourselves a Sabbath rest?

Self-care doesn’t require conformity. If anything, it asks of us greater tolerance of the variety of ways in which we live our rabbinates. We can get a little preachy, those of us who are trained to preach. And we rabbis are a sensitive lot. We bristle at others’ telling us what we should be doing. Most of us don’t need help criticizing ourselves. We already see what someone else is doing and imagine he/she/they is the “Perfect Rabbi” against whom we don’t measure up. How often do we read our own perceived failures in other peoples’ successes? This is a good moment to turn that sense of self-judgment into self-inquiry. What do you yourself need in this moment? Whatever you usually do for self-care, the solution now is to do more of it. Rest more. Clean more. Talk more. Knit more. Binge-watch more. And if what you normally do isn’t working for you, try something else. Take advantage of the CCAR coaches who are offering pro bono sessions. Find a chevruta. Try self-compassion. And most of all, let yourself feel whatever it is that you yourself need to feel. 

We don’t know yet where and when this will end, but it will. And in that future time of recuperation and assessment, our role will be even more important. That is reason enough for us to work at self-preservation in the present so we will have energy left for tomorrow. We need to remind ourselves that working harder isn’t necessarily working better. We need to remember that being resilient may be our greatest talent of all. Our people have survived calamities and disasters by virtue of our adaptability and creativity.  Save your energy. In a time where perfection isn’t the gold standard, give yourself permission to be good enough.

* With gratitude to a wonderful Supervision Group for their suggestions and inspiring support of me and each other.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis is a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and in New York City. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and has served on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis. She is also certified as a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

Passover Pesach

This Passover, I Want to Break Free from the Busyness of Life

I never seem to be ready for Passover.  It always springs upon me, this rite of spring, and I’m always left feeling like I’ve just barely recovered from Purim and the sensory overload that repeat exposure to carnivals can cause (because let’s be real: one can only handle so many bounce houses).  But then Passover arrives without delay, completely unsympathetic to my protest or pleas, wholly indifferent to my fatigue.

No matter how prominent its place on my calendar, Passover still comes in like a tempest, turning me upside down and inside out when it finally hits.  And inevitably, I look around only to realize I have a house full of chametz and nary a box of matzah in sight.   It’s ironic because I am surrounded by signs of Passover’s approach in nearly every aspect of my life, both personal and professional.  I’ve got seders at work and seders at my children’s schools, matzah covers coming home in backpacks and more homemade haggadot (beautiful, precious, sweet and so appreciated!) than I know what to do with.

But while the countdown to seder ticks loud and clear, life often seems to tick louder, preventing me, or perhaps distracting me, from all I need to do, from everything I need to prepare.  This year, especially, life has felt inordinately full with all the requisite personal responsibilities: the birthday parties to plan, the doctors appointments to make, the dentists and orthodontists to consult; the school functions and the charity events and the family gatherings; the overstuffed sports schedules and labyrinthine after school schedules; the chess, the piano, the ballet, the art; the everyday hustle we know as life, along with all of my professional responsibilities as well.   It’s hard to see beyond the daily grind; and it’s even harder to make way for a holiday as all-encompassing and routine altering as Passover.

This year, I confess, I feel particularly compressed by the endless, relentless activity in my home and in my life, and by the incalculable physical, mental and emotional exertion this life demands.  Sometimes it feels like the more I do, the smaller my life becomes, reduced as it is to going and coming, coming and going.  Life is defined by straight, rigid lines, rather than curved, flexible arcs, and it is tightly bound by schedules, timetables and agendas.   It’s a paradox, really, that more does not always yield more, but rather, more often yields less.

As Passover approaches, I admit I feel constricted by the narrowness of this intensely crowded life, a life, albeit, that is filled with so much good and so much blessing.  Yet I worry I’m racing as fast as I can, but falling further and further behind.   It’s hard to stop.  It’s hard to unwind a life that, even with its challenges, feels so ingrained and so familiar.   Sometimes I wonder, where do I even begin?  To be quite honest, I don’t really know.

But I do know the story of Passover and I do know that our ancestors moved through the straits of bondage to discover a freedom they had never known.  They left the narrow places that constrained them and made their way into a vast, open wilderness where promise awaited them.   This is the story we tell every year around the seder table, and in so many ways, this is the story of our lives.

I am so grateful to live a life of freedom and to enjoy the liberties so many yet yearn to call their own.  But I know there is a life on the horizon that is even more expansive and even more bounteous, even more free.  It is a life that is full—not of endless activity and motion and striving, but one of possibility and generosity and love, a life that is waiting for me, for all of us; as our promise.   The challenge of reaching that place is as simple as it is hard: how to leave the narrow spaces we know so well and journey forward into the unknown?

Rabbi Sara Sapadin serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as Adjunct Rabbi. 

Rabbis spirituality

A Reminder of Some of the Most Important Work We Must Do

As I move more deeply into my third year of working with the CCAR to provide companionship and guidance in the area of self-care, the Yamim provided an opportunity to reflect upon my tremendous gratitude for this privilege and the gifts it brings me every day. Among those – the opportunity eight years after leaving pulpit work to offer something to those of you who continue to shoulder that rich, rewarding and challenging responsibility. I also find myself reflecting upon the toll the work and all that goes with it can take upon us, and how that has played out in the lives of some with whom I have worked since entering into this role with the Conference. One thing that rises clearly for me is the awareness that a primary source of the pain I encounter in some of our colleagues is the result, in no small part, of inner personal work set aside in the face of professional demands, which feel more immediate and – often – overwhelming.

And yet, dear friends, we all know somewhere in our gut that the external work will eventually suffer for inner work not done. Last year I posed to you the question, “What am I doing or should I be doing to set my own spiritual and psychological house in order and to make sure that it is a Sukkot shalom?”.  The last couple of years, sitting with ever more of you, confirm me in the clarity that the cheshbon nefesh in which many of us feel there is no opportunity to engage during the Yamim must, nonetheless, happen – v’im lo achshav, eimatai? If we fail to do it, the apparent security of the structures we have erected in our lives – families, marriages, careers – are at risk of rot and ruin. Those external sukkot are, ultimately, only as strong as the inner sukkah of our souls.

So, once again, I invite you into conversation. This can come about through the possibility of one-on-one work in short-term spiritual direction or counseling or through participation in offerings I coming forth over the course of the next year, such as the online Mindfulness Class beginning October 26th. As we head into this Shabbat Sukkot, we remember the oft-told tale of Zusya, lamenting the fact that he wasn’t Moses. Neither are we, and if even Moses couldn’t do it alone, as we read in the parashah this Shabbat, how can we hope to do so. We need those quiet moments, to be sheltered in the sukkah of the cleft of that rock, to hear and feel the message of companionship and support which is a manifestation of Holiness in our lives. It will be my honor to share such moments with you. Hoping to hear this year from many of you, I wish all of you a joyous, healthy and fulfilling 5777 in which you are able to set free sparks of holiness and healing for all, Mo’adim l’simchah and Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, LSW is the CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness, providing short-term counseling or spiritual direction to rabbis in need. He can be reached at or 410-207-1700.  Rex will be leading “Building a Jewish Mindfulness Practice” webinar series with CCAR, starting Wednesday, October 26 — sign up now!

High Holy Days spirituality

High Holy Day Self-Care: A Rabbinic Primer

My ex-boyfriend used to joke: I love you every week of the year, except for the week between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Oh, and the day before Rosh HaShanah. I find it challenging to love you then too.

I get it, and I bet you (and your significant other, or kids, or cantor, or assistant, or all of the above) do too. As a Rabbi’s kid, who’s herself worked for some very anxious senior Rabbis, I can attest: the high holy days often make us crazy. And not just crazy but angry, unpleasant, overtired and sometimes even nasty. My mom (who, strictly speaking, as a pediatric surgeon had a far more stressful job than my father) used to say, “I just try to stay out of your dad’s way during the month before the holy days.”

The irony is, of course, this: ‘tis the season of cheshbon hanefesh, of checking ourselves, apologizing to others, and guarding, a bit more closely, our words and actions. It’s what we preach from the bima, but far, far too often fail to practice in the lead up to the days of awe.

So, in the summers leading up to Elul, I’ve gone above and beyond to set aside some time to prepare myself – not just with cues and sermons and music – but spiritually, emotionally, and physically, for the chagim.

A few suggestions, based on trial and error:

1) The next time you’re agonizing over a sermon, or impressing your biggest donors with your Yom Kippur appeal, or figuring out the perfect balance between the political and the pastoral, stop. Literally. Stop it. Get out of your office. Step away from your computer. Put down the David Wolpe or Jonathan Sacks sermon you wish you’d written, and go for a walk. Get a massage. Hug your kids. Pick up Annie Dillard, or Wendell Berry, or Brene Brown, or Mary Oliver’s new book of poetry, or Yehuda Amichai, or whatever, whoever, inspires you. And then forgive yourself for not being able to produce utter brilliance in one sitting. If you have a creative hobby outside of the rabbinate, do it. Paint. Go to a yoga class. Go for a hike. Walk the dog. Give back to yourself so you have something to give to others.

2) Take your own preaching to heart, and forgive. Forgive the temple president who drives you crazy, the assistant who forgot to mail out the yahrtzeit notices, and yourself, for everyone you’ve failed – knowingly, and unknowingly this year. Be like God: balance your judgment of yourself – and everyone else – with mercy, compassion and gentleness. And then, once you’ve forgiven, apologize to those you need to apologize too. And don’t yell at anyone during the ten days, or you’ll have to do it again. (Yes, even you, Rabbi.)

3) Daven, just a little, just a bissel, every day of Elul. For me, this means mindfulness meditation. For others, it means selichot – prayers of forgiveness. For still others, it’s a niggun that connects us to our hearts. Because if you can’t give to yourself spiritually, or connect with what brought you to the Rabbinate in the first place, you can’t give to your congregants, or your students, or your patients.

4) The morning of Erev Rosh HaShanah, if you can, take an hour, or maybe even two, for yourself. Do something that gets you out of your head, out of your neuroses, and into your body. Last year, I woke up early and went surfing for two hours, which put me (very small person) in perspective (a very, very big ocean). (How important could my own mishegas about everything going off without a hitch be in a world so big?) This year, I’ll go for a trail run. Whatever it is that nurtures you (maybe even watching your favorite comedian for an hour), get out of your anxieties and fears and into a place of joy, and contentment, so that when you’re on the bima, welcoming the new year with all the joy, and excitement that a new year deserves, you mean it. The Jews in the pews can tell when you mean it.

5) Once the moment comes, try to enjoy it. Try to pray while you’re leading services. Try to set aside all of the madness that led up to the moment when tefilot begin and simply be present to the birthday of the world. It’s the climax of our spiritual year, the peak of the arc of our Jewish yearly lives and too often we’re too busy looking for our next cue or trying to make eye contact with the cantor to take it all in. So take an extra breath when you’re facing the ark, or pause for just a heartbeat, and remember what a tremendous privilege it is to lead hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jews in letting go, starting over and beginning again. Even when it makes us crazy, it’s still the best work in the world.

Oh, and finally: Shanah tovah u’metukah – may it be a sweet, happy, healthy and meaningful new year for all of us.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Adventure Rabbi in Boulder, Colorado.



Sharing our Lives

We all share the title of Rabbi, but our lives are so different. We may find ourselves in many different roles – some of us serve congregations, and some of us find our calling in other professional ways, such as social justice. And some of us, myself included, are retired, whatever that word means. And geographically, we are literally all over the world.

Several years ago Steve Arnold felt that we needed a more immediate way to share our lives, and began what we now call the Caring Committee and its online presence, Sharing our Lives. Last year Steve passed the reins to me, and as many of you know, I try to keep you informed when something occurs.

But Sharing Our Lives more than my mere passive postings on the internet. Sharing our Lives creates a way for each of us to connect to those whose lives are intertwined with ours. What I post is just a doorway for each of us to do our own outreach. My highest satisfaction comes when I hear from someone who tells me that they are overwhelmed by the response they have received from a posting. This is a two-way street; both the sender and the receiver are strengthened when we make contact to share in the lives of others. And our community itself becomes closer and stronger. My own personal circle of colleagues has become much wider over the past couple of years. And in my years as a pulpit rabbi so many times what was for me a simple outreach, was received by a congregant as a warm affirmation or support for them. We can do the same for each other.

When you have a life-cycle event that you would like to share with your colleagues just let me know. Good news or sad news, you are a part of a rabbinic community that cares, and we want to rejoice with you in times of joy, and support you in times of distress.  I can be reached at

It will make it much easier for me if you send me all the information that should be included. The date of the event (not “yesterday”, but the exact date), names of family members (and note if any of them are colleagues). If you are reporting a death, please include funeral and shiva information if you want that published.

My only sources for your contact information are the CCAR website directory, and HUCalum. However, I find that often that information is out of date. So please include your street, city, state, zip, phone and email information. (And if you have not updated the CCAR and HUCalum websites, I suggest that you take a few minutes to make sure your information is correct.)

Irvin Ehrlich is Founding Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs, CO. 

chaplains General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

APA Mental Health Guide for Faith Leaders

The American Psychiatric Association has just released new resources on mental health for faith leaders. Thanks to our colleague Rabbi Edie Mencher for bringing these new materials to our attention. The linked resources are invaluable gifts from a partnership between the faith community and the American Psychatric Association (not to be confused with the American Psychological Association, in our awareness for very different and disappointing reasons this week.) The deeply informative manual as well as the supplementary quick reference guide should be required reading for all of our rabbinic work. For those serving in congregations, I call your attention in particular in the manual to the section on wellness, as well as the second portion of the manual focused on ways the congregation can become even more responsive to mental health issues.

I offer two additional foci for your consideration. One, mentioned briefly on page 17, cannot be underestimated. That is the power of the pulpit. On these kinds of issues, your power to open hearts and provide illumination is immense. I know of several of our colleagues who have spoken recently, often from very personal perspectives, of grief, depression and other mental health issues. They have reported to me the impact of these interventions and can feel the depth of the service they have provided.

The other focus, not mentioned explicitly, is of equal import. I speak of the importance of self-care. And, in this case, I am not back on my soapbox about wellness practice. Rather, I am referring to the importance of attending to our own mental and spiritual fitness when we are engaged with helping others attack these issues in their own lives. From compassion fatigue, through vicarious trauma to triggering of deep-seated conflict, our work both puts us at risk and REQUIRES of us that we make sure we are staying attuned to our inner lives and how they are affected by that work.

So, please, read the materials referred to here, and also take an inventory of your current state and support systems. And, as always, if you’d like to discuss these or any matters, please reach out by e-mail anytime at

A Prayer of Healing for Mental Illness – check out this PDF from Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Rex D Perlmeter is the CCAR Social Work Intern for Member Care and Wellness